Sizzling red bulbs overhead noisily blinked 00:00 as the waiting crowd giggled and cracked jokes outside the National Aquarium in Baltimore. "Great omen," laughed a chubby man as he gulped a soda.
"It's just a clock that can't tell time," a friend next to him in line deadpanned back. "Like this industry."
A lanky man carrying his jacket over his tote bag didn't see the humor. "Make jokes now," he warned. "I predict: no matter what they say in there, it's gonna end up like that," he said, pointing with his thumb at the clock. "Zero is what our world is coming to. Did you ever think maybe we're screwed? Maybe we just can't fix it?"
00:00 continued blinking above.
This event was billed as "rollout," one of those evangelistic pep rallies the computer industry was famous for. Plenty of music, entertainment, and dazzle for the disk du jour. But this rollout was different.
Bluestar had in fact assembled more than eleven hundred retail players and point men as the biggest crisis response team in the industry's history. The prized attendees were several dozen buyers and marketing directors from every major computer and software retailer in the world: Silicon Expressway, CompUSA, Computer City, Radio Shack, Babbages, HyperMedia, EuroDisk, Automatique, Electro Warehouse, MicroSeller, Midnight Surfer, Instant Software, Cheaper Software, and even some of the smaller resellers such as Flee Market and BizDisk—they were all there. This time, the invitation included not just the chain stores, but the catalog houses and the Internet. And not just those based in America, but overseas as well.
More than just the senior decisionmakers, Bluestar wanted to marshal the ranks—regional bosses, key store managers, advertising and promotion execs, even lead salesmen in pivotal high-volume stores, and supervising telephone operators from the 800 lines.
The assembled representatives all thought of themselves as computer-savvy power users, technically adept, and versed in the latest acronyms. In truth, most in the crowd, especially from the larger resellers, comprehended only the most superficial aspects of computer technology. They understood as much about software as car salesmen understood about automotive technology—just enough to sell this week's product to this week's customers. So Bluestar would be careful not to overwhelm the audience with techno-babble that would dilute the support it needed to rally. It was not important that this crowd understand the inner workings of the crisis, just the existence of one.
The outside doors finally opened. Noisy, sweaty, the herd of retailers moved up the canopied exterior escalators into the Aquarium entrance. From there, they were guided past the illuminated glass towers of undulating jellyfish, beyond a pool of stingrays, up a long spiral ramp and through the red metal doors of the natatorium, a great hall, half-encased in a glass dome. Below, a mirrorlike pool, spanned by a narrow bridge, created a waterborne stage. Microminiskirted women, all redheads, all wearing black vests emblazoned with a Z, kept repeating, "Fill the front rows first. Fill the front rows first." When all eleven hundred seats were taken, the red doors closed and the last few hurriedly found an aisle step.
Faint angelic soprano voices piped overhead signaled the show's beginning. Massive mechanized shades began pulling across the glass dome. Row by row, the hall became dark until only the stage pool's faint underwater lights remained. Then even those were turned off. Now only red exit lights in the corners broke the darkness.
Suddenly, a low thudding staccato bass guitar pumped from the rear. People's heads turned. A loud, piercing choir of voices brought the audience's focus back to the front. Tense rhythms from the side, back, then the sides again, kept the crowd guessing.
Thin but powerful towers of dense light shot up from the pool. The music crescendoed and then cut completely. "Ladies and gentlemen," the ceiling speaker declared, "the National Aquarium is proud to introduce
… Johhhhhn Hector!"
Spotlights crisscrossed over a point stage right and the music boomed again as a potbellied man emerged wearing an orange golf shirt embroidered with a Z. The audience cheered, many stood and hooted with enthusiasm. He walked across the bridge spanning the center of the pool, and waited for the excitement to subside.
"Hello everybody, I'm John Hector."
"Thank you, thank you," he said over the cheers, "for coming to this luscious stage, the beautiful Baltimore Aquarium. Of course, no one needs an excuse to come to beautiful Baltimore. However, this is an especially momentous occasion, a day we have been working for this past half decade. Now, I would ask that you settle in and sit back, so we can get right to the point.
"You and I both know that the world is facing the potential for disaster in about eighteen months when the clocks tick in the next century. Call it the Millennium Bug, call it Y2K Compliance, call it the Century Glitch. When the year 2000 comes, nearly every mainframe computer in the world—and many smaller ones—will cease functioning. The world as we know it will stop right along with it. And your companies—and your customers—will surely be in the thick of it.
"Already, people with Visas and MasterCards expiring in the year 2000 can't use them; '00' simply doesn't exist in the authorizing mainframes. Our own convention department can't get a hotel in Las Vegas to book comdex reservations in the year 2000 because the reservation systems can't find the year. But when the big moment comes at midnight the morning of January 1, year 2000, our woes will be more than cash only for your cappuccino and a lost suite at the Hilton. It will be a global disaster as destructive as any war."
Not a few of the leading buyers in the front row fidgeted. The woman from Electro Warehouse called out, "Is that a little extreme?"
"We've done the studies," Hector replied. "Our banks will crash. Accounts will disappear off the books. Checks will not clear, especially those involving foreign transactions. Most Asian, African, and Latin American banks haven't even started to repair their systems—now it's too late. Office buildings, now totally operated by central computer systems, will shut down completely, trapping everyone either in or out; every service will malfunction—from HVAC to elevators. Hospitals will become killing centers as computer-driven intensive care units and the rest of modern medical technology simply stops or goes out of control. We don't know if the prison doors will remain shut forever or swing wide open. Certainly, electrical grids will blink off and municipal water districts will stop pumping, throwing our cities into darkness and thirst. Air traffic control will freeze—don't believe otherwise. Many airplanes could actually stop flying—I wouldn't want to be midair when the on-board computers go black. It's not just the ordinary looking computers with screens and keyboards, but the small, unseen, embedded computerized components, especially the older ones. For example, not a few new cars dependent upon tiny microchips will be unable to start. Phones will go off because 90 percent of the local switches are still using technology from the early nineties, some the late eighties. Backups will not work—you can forget those. The Internet will crash. And everything computerized in the government from the post office to military management will crash with it."
The crowd grew stonefaced as Hector continued in a grim tone, "I'm afraid no one even knows whether our nuclear missiles can be controlled. In one DOD study, which Bluestar's FedTech division coordinated, we found that when the clocks aboard Trident submarines—I'm talking the biggest submarines in our fleet—tick in the year 2000 and are unable to locate the correct date, every missile on board may just launch. Try as we might, no one can predict whether the missile targets will be here in America or default to someplace else. No one knows. Nor do we know what the missiles in other countries will do. Hello? Russia? China? Iraq? They all have missiles and nothing even approaching the Y2K rescue program we have in America. Heavens, we don't even know if our own radar systems will be able to see enemy missiles … or if they will see missiles that don't even exist. Just don't know. Just don't know, my friends.
"Oh, yes," he went on, " I see the expressions on your faces. Some of you are skeptical and more are probably pretty frightened. I have to tell you, a lot of people have been in techno-denial for some time on this," he paused to allow his words to sink in, "just assuming the cavalry will come riding in with a fix. But if we can't make it right, if we can't … God help us. First our world will stop. Then we will probably blow it up. Doomsday, my friends, now dwells in a disk drive."
A sales manager from BizDisk stood up and yelled with disbelief, "What happened to Miami?"
"The Miami Project didn't work," Hector shot back, "and we all know why. The government thought every program running on every network could be made Y2K-compliant with a big hairy bug fix. A bug fix! But all the projections have concluded that the President's Miami Project is a total failure and I was informed—actually just two hours ago—that within a week Miami is expected to permanently disband on orders from the White House. A waste of money—and worse, a waste of time we didn't have.
"But we at Bluestar were not sleeping." Moving into the hype mode needed to sell this group, Hector insisted, "We at Bluestar have a solution, the solution you and your customers have been waiting for. Bluestar, still the giant among all computer names, Bluestar has the resources to answer this challenge first and answer it best. We hold more computer-related patents than any other software manufacturer anywhere. We work with more ISVs, more OEMs, and more VARs and integrators than any other computer company on the planet.
"Every IT and IS manager on the job knows his company's mission critical tasks reliably belong to Bluestar today, and we hope that will continue in the future. You of all people understand that we know how to stuff the channels, gain market entry, and quickly achieve 'best of breed' status while the other guys—and we know who they are—are still issuing press releases about unavoidable delays. They slip. We ship. That's why we're going GA in Q3 with the technology the world needs not only to stay productive, but literally to continue existing."
The crowd reacted, and he shouted to be heard. "That's right. Not next year. But generally available with a permanent solution by October of this year."
"Miami, ladies and gentlemen, didn't work. But Zooooooom will!"
Hector outstretched his arms holding a shiny glistening Zoom CD for all to see. Twin white velour banners unfurled on cue from the ceiling. The unrolling banners displayed a descending column of stacked Bluestar logos until the larger payoff logo at the bottom appeared: "ZOOM" in massive burnt orange Friz Quadrata letters. "Zoom," roared Hector as a blast of music from an offstage network MIDI console jolted the throng.
Hector stretched out his arms again, and now the pool waters parted as a giant submerged gold-colored inflatable Zoom software box rose from a golden center podium in the pool.
"Showmanship if nothing else," one buyer wryly commented to the man seated next to him.
Suddenly, a dozen thousand pound bottlenose dolphins leaped over the Zoom box. Their gray-green dorsal fins and pectoral flippers whizzed through the air loud enough for people in the first few rows to marvel. One by one, rostrum down, tail fluke curved to the ceiling lights, each dolphin twisted its pink belly into view before triumphantly slicing back through the water and disappearing below. "Zoom," preached Hector. "Zoom, salvation for a computerized world ticking off the minutes to its own irreversible delete star dot star."
Two giant screens on either side of Hector lowered. His presentation began.
"Zoom is more than a utility," he declared, wiping his brow. "More than a mere fixpack, more than a patch for our existing software, Zoom is a whole new operating system."
Groans arose from the audience.
"I know. I know," he quieted them down. "Your customers hate that word. When they come into your stores, that twenty-two-year-old sales associate can't really explain it—an operating system—and twelve questions and twenty minutes later you have no sale and a lot of wasted time. Then the four people who really did know what they wanted were sick of waiting to talk to a salesman and went home. You lost all the sales.
"But when I say Zoom is an operating system," Hector continued, "I mean a real operating system in the purest sense of the word."
Text began appearing on the TVs.
"I know, the OS Wars have left a lot of people bitter," conceded Hector, "But it never had to be that way. Everyone understood DOS," he said, pointing to the displayed text with his wand. "Hey, DOS was the Disk Operating System that ran every computer, the standard inner workings that made all the software work with your machine. What was to understand? You flipped the big red switch and there was DOS. DOS and PCs were synonymous. Weren't they?"
Some buyers laughed.
"Then came Windgazer Prime, the big boo-boo that wasn't really an operating system at all, but gave DOS computers a very pretty screen. A lot of people thought it was an operating system. Instead, it was just a face-lift on the same old soul. But at least it did make people think that one day a great operating system would appear.
"Blue2, now there was a real operating system—and a great one. A better DOS than DOS and certainly a better Windgazer than Windgazer, but put together by a brain-dead dinosaur that provoked jokes and laughter from even its most loyal supporters. Say what you will," Hector emphasized, pointing at the logo graphic, "Blue2 really redefined the way we work with PCs, allowing your mouse to drag-and-drop, allowing every part of all various software packages—from word processing to spreadsheets to phone books—to all work interactively with one another, and simultaneously. That's right: true multitasking. Blue2 let your computer do ten things at once—even if you could only keep track of two or three at a time. So Blue2 was good," he paused, "but not good enough, not slick enough to succeed."
"That's a distortion," corrected a Windgazer advocate from Silicon Expressway seated in the front row. "Windgazer multitasked. Tell the truth."
Hector rebutted, "Most experts would beg to differ. Windgazer offered cooperative multitasking, coitus interruptus for software, stopping your spread-sheet dead in its tracks while your word processor stepped in. Blue2 allowed preemptive multitasking, allowing all the programs to run simultaneously. The word is simultaneously. But it's moot. Blue2 is history. Bluestar spent too much of its time courting its adversaries and alienating its friends. Hopefully we have learned from our mistakes."
He moved the pointer down a line. "Windgazer Prime was … well what was it?"
Several in the group chuckled.
"It was prettier, a lot prettier," he declared. "A GUI to die for. Loved it. But a big, big lie, because what that graphical user interface—the screen setup—what it told you on the screen was not what was happening inside the CPU. But for the public, 'pretty' worked. While Blue2 floundered, Windgazer Prime flourished. It became a best-seller.
"Oh yes, people deserved Windgazer," said Hector snidely. "Look, whatever it was," he added matter-of-factly, "Windgazer Prime held people's attention long enough for a high-powered operating system to come along, Windgazer IT—a real industrial strength operating system. Certainly, too much for most computers and probably designed to make everyone buy way more memory than they needed and upgrade to 'overkill software' programs they couldn't use."
Snickers from the retailers could not be suppressed.
"Yeah, that part isn't all that bad," acknowledged Hector, playing to the crowd.
"So look," he continued, "many thought the OS Wars were over earlier this year and every computer would use Windgazer IT the way they once used DOS—ipso facto. But not so. Now, all legacy operating systems are expected to perish in eighteen months when the clock catches up with our generation. It's July, we don't even have eighteen months. When the century turns, unless we make it right, it won't matter if you're spinning Unix, Blue2, Mac08, OS/2, Microsoft Windows, Win95, Win98, NT, OS/400, MVS, VMS, or Windgazer—every computer will be a boxcar without a locomotive."
He shook his head, pursed his lips and admitted, "Think of the arrogance, negligence, call it what you will, decades ago, when our code punchers simply never accounted for a year after 1999." Hector seemed to drift. "Was it all going so fast? Were we all so nearsighted, that we lived only for the day, or for so few days?"
A blue-jeaned heckler from the stands called out, "Bluestar shares a big part of the blame. None of you would give up the two bytes."
"That's right," Hector shot back, almost apologizing. "It was a shortcut. Two bytes instead of four to designate a year. But now it's a reality. Without those first two bytes in a date, the system can't recognize the next century. Some systems will think 1900, some won't think at all.
"It's easy to say we at Bluestar did it. But in truth, all of us caused this problem," he countered dramatically. "In the past two years, we have made more progress in computerizing our existence than anyone ever dreamed. Progress has its price, and the discounts were illusory. Even seeing the Millennium Bug before us, no one dared pause, no one dared slow down. We just rushed at it with more better faster sooner. No time to breathe, I'm too busy swimming. Lord, the number of personal computers kept doubling, extending into virtually every facet of our lives from national defense, to personal banking, to home security—all essentially operating on one, repeat one, operating system—Windgazer Prime.
"I say it again," Hector hammered, "Bluestar didn't want one system, but the public bought into one system. Or shall I say one family of systems. Many went kicking and screaming. But many went sleepwalking. So we at Bluestar withdrew our competitive software products and cooperated so at least our hardware was compatible. We owed that to our stockholders, customers, and employees."
"Hiiiiiiinnom," the heckler continued.
"Okay," answered Hector. "Hinnom. He toppled Blue2, true, and all other software that stood in his way. Damn near took us over corporately. But we're not here to talk about Hinnom, we're here to talk about Bluestar."
Someone else stood up from the crowd shouting, "What are we afraid of? We can talk about Hinnom."
Hector waved the agitated crowd down. "When Ben Hinnom wants to rent the Baltimore Aquarium and come announce a product, he can talk about himself," he said. "Bluestar has the stage today and Bluestar has the product.
"So let me talk to you about why we're here … about Zoom." The crowd paused and Hector resumed. "As the most advanced operating system ever devised, Zoom will feature 100 percent backward compatibility, working with all previous systems, sitting on top of and actually converting everything we can lay our hands on into a Y2K-compliant, completely voice-activated operating system. When I say everything, I mean everything, from the cutest Butterfly to the glass room: 286s running DOS, Pentium IIs and IIIs, AS/400s, RISC 6000s, Sun Sparcstations, DECs, PowerMacs and Newtons, Wizards, Palm IIIs and Go-Techs, the complete Hinnom family from Windgazer Prime to Windgazer IM, and beyond. Big Iron running MVS? No problem. Try any piece of legacy or competitive system you care to throw at us. Whatever it takes. Bluestar will make Zoom available on every medium, from 5-and-a-quarter floppies, to standard 3-and-a-halfs, from Zip and Jazz drives, Syquests, and CD-ROMs to mag tapes. And web sites everywhere will feature buttons allowing incremental downloads in the background so a user doesn't spend extra time online. You name it, we'll utilize it. A true 64-bit system, Zoom will run all comers in emulation and eventually grind into native code.
"The secret," he teased, "is the Zoom Conversion Library—I'm going to simplify here because we don't want to give too much away—that reprograms every known operating system and modifies every computer config.sys and instruction set to, shall I say, redraw the computer's date sense to the year 2040. Even when the year 2000 arrives, every computer can enjoy yet another forty years of usability—more than anyone would ever expect. There will be plenty of time for all new software and preloaded CPUs to be Zoom-compliant. ZCL will not only reprogram operating systems, it will rewrite vital calls within software itself and modify all contact with the Internet. In slower machines, this will mean a slight delay when loading a program or logging on to the Net, but only initially. We admit that. But in faster machines, Pentiums IIs, Power PCs and faster, with enough RAM to stand up to the task, users will never see the wait state."
The lights went back up. Both screens receded into the ceiling. A cadre of Z-vested convention models fanned out bearing silvery plastic trays stacked with champagne in squat two-ounce white plastic cups. A second group of models passed out black plastic binders; each was sealed by three tabs and bore a large orange Z embossed on the cover. Hector waited for everyone to get theirs.
"There's plenty to go around," he ribbed. "Wait for yours. The ladies will get to you."
Many in the audience reached almost frantically for their dose and their data. "Don't spill any on the notebooks," joked Hector. "They cost us $1.15 each.
"Okay, now you'll have time to review these later," Hector continued, "and please save your champagne for our toast coming up shortly. But if I can direct your attention to page six. Our plans for proliferation—everyone on page six—require each of you to become an evangelist for Zoom. Adoption and conversion of as many as possible as soon as possible is essential. We are even working on a Zoom 'firewall' if you will. Next year, an update will prohibit any connections with any non-Zoom computers, and indeed any installation of any new software not in the Zoom Conversion Library. We'll treat non-Zooms like a virus.
"Now we are moving as quickly as possible on this," he explained. "Every minute counts. By midnight tonight, our Developer Adviser program will email Zoom briefings to all software engineers we know of in virtually all countries developing software. The DA web site, hyperlinked to each of those emails, will provide instant access to the toolkits needed for Zoom compliance.
"Every major and minor retail chain," he explained in rapid fire, "Silicon Expressway, CompUSA, Radio Shack, Computer City, Babbages, and yes, the new boys on the block like Flee Market—I see you there—all of you here today will be receiving demo diskettes within three weeks that you can stuff into every retail package, be it a new computer or a Crossword Puzzle CD-ROM. A $65-million advertising program will launch ten days prior to our GA date. We'll own spreads in every major piece of print from Sports Illustrated to Forbes, the choicest network spots from wrestling to the evening news and from The Simpsons to reruns of Seinfeld. You'll see billboards outside the washrooms in airports, skywriters above Manhattan, discount coupons in every airline seat pocket and concert program. Twelve state prison systems have been contracted to provide inmates; these guys are going to operate phone banks, telemarketing as many as one million users per day. Our corporate customers will cooperate and indeed Bluestar will be adding Zoomers into every piece of commercial software we sell. Every grocery checkout screen will ask 'Are you Zoomed?' Every bank receipt will carry the message: 'Are you Zoomed?'
"Okay. Numbers time," he continued at a speedy clip. "You see, with PC and minicomputer versions added in, we are talking my friends of three hundred million copies of Zoom at $49 a piece with a 61 percent retail markup. Do the math and then my friends I believe you will agree with me when we say …" There was a terrifying pause as eleven-hundred left brains calculated their piece of the behemoth sales campaign. One by one their eyes leveled down and transfixed as they awaited Hector's next words. He held back until no one could wait a moment longer.
"… Agree with me, agree with me and raise your glasses as we toast the next megabillion dollar phenomenon in retail software, the next jetway to profits, and the answer to mankind's potential destruction, I ask you to join my toast."
He raised his own plastic cup high with one hand while the other waved the Zoom CD from left to right as though a banner in the wind, and then yelled, "Go Zoom!"
Everybody shot from their chairs. The seats whipped back in unison like a monstrous pair of boots snapping to.
"Go Zoom," the crowd toasted enthusiastically.
"Say it again," Hector beckoned almost seductively.
"Go Zoom!" they shouted back in unison as all downed their dose.
Hector raised his hands to eye level and declared in a subdued but dramatic voice, "Now. Go back to all your stores, to your mailing lists and databases, to your catalogs and SKUs, to your universal barcodes, your checkout scanners, your employees, your mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, every live one of them, and grandchildren still waiting to come into a world that works, a world that knows productivity and a world that must and will boot up in the year 2000. Go to them and say, ‘Go Zoom.’ For without Zoom, things are going to get pretty damn ugly out there. We may just destroy ourselves. But with Zoom—with Zoom—we just may make it."
Copyright © 2023 Edwin Black. All rights reserved.